entering utopia, a peach leaf may be your brief respite from pain ::::
I will call her Mary. He may also be called Michael. She is the prototypical pain patient, and so is he. She is young, she is old. He walks slowly, with a wrinkled grimace, but laughs at my jokes. Her back and neck pain is much like any other patient’s pain: it is unwavering, it is debilitating, it has become so prevalent in her daily life that it defines her. It started from a car accident or lifting her child from a chair. Or maybe when he was trying to push a toolbox over a truck bed. Or maybe an assault in a grocery store. Or after he was diagnosed with HIV and lost his job. Or even from sitting at her work desk all day, for years and years. It could also be genetic, she thinks, remembering her mother had the same nagging pain when she aged, her bones crumpling in her spine one by one. My patient’s started in the neck, just a little “crick,” he thought when it began, but it subtly moved into the muscles, his thoracic paraspinal muscles, into his lumbar spine and pelvis. The pain morphed from just a dull pain to a throb, a tingling, a heart-stopping stab every so often. Her wrists ache, her fingers hurt. It worsens with stress, say, after her ex-husband used to beat her. Or when his ex-wife used to nag. She tells me pulling the covers over her shoulders at night is nothing short of terrible; how could something so simple become so painful? she wonders aloud. This prototypical patient of mine, she sometimes has a good day.
While I do not have debilitating pain, I know what it can do one’s life, how it can upset the balance of living, tipping over to survival mode. I know that we all must have respite from the busy-ness of life, from the undertow that sweeps us unaware sometimes. Here is mine today: peach leaf crème brûlée. Much like how pain can gradually sneak up and become chronic unexpectedly, I give you the prolific but subtle peach leaf. I have reveled in the peach tree outside our home, only realizing its full potential this year. Alice Waters, the trailblazer chef who championed artisan producers and good food in the now world-renowned restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkley, California, has written many cookbooks, one of them that I have had the pleasure to read. She recounts building the restaurant from the ground up was a process not immune to growing pains, hers as well as the restaurant’s. When I spied her peach leaf crème brûlée recipe, I couldn’t help but want to try it. It was unique, unexpected, and I had a tree full of peach leaves at my fingertips.
Some hints for success: use a good quality blowtorch to caramelize the tops, or a broiler. My simple three-button $5 mini-torch was a total fail. The igniting the thing proved a waste: its plastic click button did nothing. I had no desire to go back to the hardware store (seeing as my receipt was long gone) so I improvised. It made the house heat up more than I wanted on a sunny afternoon, but the broiler worked just as well as a blowtorch to create the all-important crackly caramelization atop my jiggly sugary creams. Though it isn’t the traditional crème brûlée method to caramelize, there are other cultural variations of this dessert where a broiler is the first choice.
Another thing: be careful on leaf steep time, tasting it to make sure you are achieving the floral, almond flavor. The peach leaf flavor was very subtle for me, or maybe I was too cautious on the steeping time.
The best part is the crack! heard over every ramekin. That crackle of caramelized sugar on crème brûlée when first tapped, yielding then to soft custard is the quintessential dessert. It’s a huge bonus that it can be made in advance, then caramelize the tops less than an hour before serving.
This is my respite. Here might be yours.
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- ½ cup sugar (plus more for caramel topping)
- 1 cup peach leaves, torn or crushed
- 5-6 egg yolks
- Pour the cream into a bowl and refrigerate.
- Warm the milk with ½ cup sugar in a nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves.
- Off the heat, add the peach leaves and steep for 5-10 minutes. The original recipe warns against steeping too long as the leaves will impart a bitter flavor. Taste the mixture after 5 minutes; it should be faintly floral and somewhat almond-flavored. Remove the leaves and cool slightly.
- Whisk the egg yolks lightly in a medium bowl. Gradually add the milk-sugar mixture to the yolks, stirring constantly until the yolks are thoroughly incorporated. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into the bowl of cold heavy cream and stir well. I ended up with almost 4 cups (less than 1 liter) of liquid. Refrigerate for up to a day, or proceed with the rest of the recipe immediately.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Fill eight 4- to 5-ounce ramekins with the crème brûlée mixture, and place in shallow baking dish. Fill the baking dish with warm water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes (mine took longer because my ramekins were larger).
- Open one corner of the foil to check the custards. They should be completely set except for a small dime-sized spot in the center.To test for doneness, jiggle the ramekins, protecting your hand with an oven mitt. When done, remove the finished custards from the water bath and cool for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
- Just before serving, sprinkle the top of each custard evenly with 2 tablespoons of sugar. using a small propane torch (I found mine in a hardware store -- fail!), caramelize sugar. The broiler works well, too, but watch very carefully as the sugar can quickly burn. The caramel crust will stay crisp for an hour.
- Prep and cooking times also should include cooling time in the fridge.